Newsletter: The coronavirus’ frightening unknowns

The 110 Freeway heading north out of downtown Los Angeles has very light traffic for a Friday, suggesting that Californians are heeding the governor's "stay at home" order.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, March 21, 2020. I’m COVID-19-symptom free, and I sincerely hope this newsletter finds you similarly well and sheltered in place. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

I opened last week’s newsletter with a similar plug: I cannot emphasize enough how indispensable the Los Angeles Times’ daily coronavirus newsletter is; please go here for information on subscribing. It contains summaries and links to our own 24/7 coverage of the global pandemic in addition to other resources; plus, it’s free, which I know is important since so many readers have sent us letters expressing their wish that the paper would remove its subscription paywall from all COVID-19 converage. (How do I know this? It’s my job — I edit the letters page.)

In Opinion, one theme above all has dominated our coronavirus commentary: the importance of complying with social distancing directives, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order issued Thursday. If our news coverage can be classified as “news you can use,” then I’d call our editorial on the governor’s order “views you can use,” for it summarizes the seriousness of what was once recklessly dismissed as a political hoax or some kind of flu that affects only the elderly and infirm. In fact, what makes this novel coronavirus so frightening is how little we know about besides our powerlessness to fight it effectively with any current treatments. Says the L.A. Times Editorial Board:


“We also don’t know if the virus’ spread will wane with warmer temperatures, as many other respiratory illnesses do. It may not — COVID-19 infections are increasingly turning up in equatorial countries and in the southern hemisphere, where summer is just now giving way to fall.

“Also, there are still some questions about how the virus is transmitted. ... Studies aren’t definitive, but they underscore the fact that we are still gathering crucial information about how this virus acts.

“Even those who believe they are safe from the outbreak because of their age or situation ought to be sobered by the implications of an uncontrolled spread of the virus. About 20% of people with diagnosed COVID-19 infections are hospitalized. A surge in infections could overwhelm the healthcare system’s capacity, limiting care and hospital beds available for people of all ages who may have been injured in car crashes, suffered heart attacks or contracted other deadly diseases.

“Social distancing and home isolation are the best tools we have at the moment to slow or even stop transmission, while we continue to search for vaccines, treatments and the resources to keep our healthcare system working. That’s what we are learning from China’s early experience managing the outbreak. The country quickly instituted strict quarantine rules for millions of people, and on Friday, Chinese officials reported for the second day in a row that they’d gone without any new cases of locally transmitted COVID-19.”


Commentary hasn’t been all “we’re in this together,” especially when it comes to one particularly bad actor. Elon Musk, who has a habit of acting smarter than everyone else on everything, recently called the coronavirus panic “dumb” and worried about over-allocating medical resources to fight the pandemic. Disappointingly but sadly not surprisingly, his car manufacturer Tesla Inc. initially kept its Fremont plant open in defiance of Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order. Eventually, Tesla promised to cease production in Fremont — starting Monday. “That attitude is frankly both unacceptable and dangerous,” says the editorial board. L.A. Times

President Trump, too. The other American billionaire who claims incomparable expertise on a number of topics seems completely overmatched against the coronavirus outbreak, similar to how Hurricane Katrina paralyzed George W. Bush. The 43rd president eventually came around to reality and accepted the weight of what happened in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast in 2005, similar to how Trump has changed from “counterpunching” against his critics and denying reality to “trying to muster resolve and clarity,” writes Virginia Heffernan. L.A. Times

And Devin Nunes. The Central Valley congressman and Trump favorite probably doesn’t want you dead, but he sure is reckless about risking your health. In an interview on (wait for it) Fox News, Nunes said now’s a great time to visit your local pub or restaurant, where it’s “likely you can get in easily.” At virtually the same moment on another Sunday morning news program, notes columnist Robin Abcarian, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, was saying that he personally would avoid restaurants. L.A. Times

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.


More on the pandemic: L.A. Times readers think it’s outrageous that the husband who gave his now-deceased wife mouth-to-mouth cannot get tested for COVID-19, even though his wife tested positive, while every player on the Lakers can. Another reader suggests an alternative to Trump’s preferred term “Chinese virus” — the “Trump virus” — while another defends the president’s ethnically loaded label. One editorial writer who says her home school is a “joke” presses education officials for a workable plan for her unschooled children. There are two potential coronavirus hot spots, and they both involve incarceration: immigrant detention centers and jails and prisons. A prison doctor echoes those warnings.

There’s still a Democratic presidential primary going on, and Joe Biden is running away with it. After his most recent debate against Sen. Bernie Sanders, Jonah Goldberg offers this advice to the former vice president: Stop debating, and stop the democratic socialist from pulling you more to the left. “Letting Sanders pull him leftward, which he did somewhat on Sunday night on issues like immigration and fracking, would be a huge mistake,” Goldberg writes. “He should have used every opportunity to turn the question to the imperative of replacing President Trump, which is the unifying message for all of Biden’s potential voters.” L.A. Times

Stay in touch.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re the kind of reader who’d benefit from subscribing to our other newsletters and to the Times.

As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at